The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Win Exposes NRM, FDC Weaknesses

Museveni fights for multipartyism as opposition embraces individual merit:

During the just-ended election campaigns, President Museveni was at pains to explain to the people of Kamuli district that the LC-V chairman by-election was not about Thomas Kategere, the ruling party candidate who eventually lost, but about the NRM as a party. As in several other by-elections this year, Museveni failed to get voters to see his viewpoint, and the NRM majority lost to the FDC minority in Kamuli.

It was not the first time, and will by no means be the last. The president has cut a frustrated figure whenever he has gone to campaign in a constituency where NRM support is fairly strong but divided candidates and supporters are about to gift the opposition with victory. This has happened in Kamuli, Butambala, Bushenyi-Ishaka, Bukoto South, etc.

There might be spirited and growing opposition support in these areas but if the NRM house was in order, the ruling party would probably win. In a perfect multiparty set-up, the political party interest is supreme; so, any flag-bearing candidate gets the requisite support, riding on the popularity of the party itself, to which losing the seat altogether is definitely worse than seeing through their own candidate who they may not like.

That is why in 2008, after Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's often acrimonious campaigns, Democrats eventually rallied and got Obama elected US president. A few black sheep might refuse to vote altogether, or even cast their vote for the opposing candidate, but the majority will be compelled to fall in line to protect their dear ideological interests.

That is how it should be. But that is not how it is here. Given that there's hardly any ideological difference amongst parties and candidates, personal attributes come to the fore much more prominently than what the candidates stand for. Independent candidates are a product of this phenomenon too.

When Museveni said, some time back, that his supporters should elect even MPs who will sleep as long as they can wake up in time to vote for NRM, he must have intended to emphasise that party hegemony overrides individual interest. He was right, technically. To Museveni, Proscovia Alengot of Usuk county is as good an MP as David Bahati of Ndorwa West because they each command one single vote in the House.

However, it is very difficult for the president to sell this message because his own stature in the party contradicts the very principle he wants supporters to espouse. The NRM support base is essentially less for the party and more for him as an individual. That is why some of them feel that having voted for him they can do with the rest of their vote [for MPs and other positions] as they please. Indeed for many Ugandans, the Movement system is still alive. The individual comes first.

For 20 years, Museveni personally ostracised political parties and his government slapped severe restrictions on their activities. He promoted the so-called Movement (individual merit) system, which was in many respects a single-party outfit, as the best for Uganda. Today Museveni is the champion of multiparty politics.

Yet, as he struggles to inculcate amongst NRM supporters the virtues of multipartyism, the opposition supporters are learning to take advantage of individual merit politics where their candidate is strong but their party not as strong. It is, indeed, paradoxical that Museveni's political baby, individual merit, is being used against him with such success.

Neither Dr Kizza Besigye nor Mugisha Muntu (FDC president) campaigned for Salaamu Musumba in Kamuli. She made sure the election was not about FDC but, rather, herself. It was the same, to some extent, with Jack Sabiiti in Rukiga county, Odo Tayebwa in Bushenyi-Ishaka municipality and Muwanga Kivumbi in Butambala county. These opposition winners cleverly played down their party affiliations and instead emphasised their personal attributes.

Kyadondo East MP Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda admits that the opposition has learnt to play down party loyalty and promote individual candidates because the strategy has succeeded in areas where NRM is fairly strong.

"It works for the opposition as long as we can identify a popular candidate as was the case in Kamuli," Ssemujju said, pointing out that the NRM candidate in this case was so unpopular that he had failed to become district speaker.

But what works for the opposition doesn't work for NRM. As the 2010 internal elections and the 2011 by-elections have shown, individualism is a threat to the ruling party and Museveni's hold onto power. One Joseph Kyomya wrote in a letter published by The Observer on Monday that while he supported NRM and voted for Museveni in the 2011 elections, he would be inclined to vote for FDC's Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu at the next elections in 2016 if he contested.

There are many Ugandans like Kyomya, whose party loyalty is really superficial and largely defined by the personality at the helm. Should the rating of their leader go down, they would have no qualms switching to another enticing candidate, even if that candidate is from outside 'their' party.

Explaining this phenomenon, Democratic Party president, Norbert Mao, says in "politics of regime change" party lines tend to be blurred, as winning becomes everything.

"You must have heard even [Dr Kizza] Besigye saying, 'this is not about parties'," Mao pointed out, adding that some leaders in his own party supported Besigye during the last presidential elections.

Mao, however, cautions that this is a Catch-22 situation because it ultimately weakens the institutional base of parties by producing individuals who feel they are more important than their parties. His conclusion is that "individualisation of politics should only be acceptable in exceptional circumstances or else you no longer have leaders but political hawkers who jump from place to place with the people as their bargaining chip."

If the self (individual) remains at the centre of Uganda's multiparty politics, as it is bound to, we could well see a Kenya-like scenario where after the disintegration of the dominant KANU, several larger-than-party politicians emerged. These politicians are better known than the briefcase parties they choose as their political vehicles when it comes to elections.

The bad in this is that multiparty politics can't take root. The good is that popular candidates like Musumba can defy their party limitations and get elected.

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